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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Return of the Avant Garde

After four years of planning, two Atlantic crossings and a little controversy, an immense collection of 20th-century Russian and Soviet avant-garde art has come home to Moscow.


The exhibition, called The Great Utopia, opened Wednesday at the New Tretyakov Gallery, after stints in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and NewYork.


It is a compelling collection of some 1, 000 works by avant-garde pioneers such as Kazimir Malevich, Vasily Kandinsky, Vladimir Tallin and dozens of other artists who helped define abstract art in this century.


Along with organizers from the New Tretyakov, project directors from the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Schirn Kunsthalle Museum in Frankfurt -- both of which hosted the exhibit last year -- were present to witnes the culmination of years of effort.


The journey home was a long one. Fourteen curators from Russia, Germany and the United States needed three years to collect the paintings from museums and private collections throughout Europe and North America.


Christoph Vitaly, director of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and one of the show's curators, said such an exhibition would never happen again,


"We realized early on that this would be the first and last time that such an exhibition would be possible", he said at the press conference that preceded the opening. "Now that the Soviet Union has crumbled, it would be too hard to collect all these works from the far-flung republics".


At its showing in New York's Guggenheim Museum last year, the exhibit drew more than 260, 000 people. Newsweek magazine called it the best exhibit of the year, ranking it above the critically acclaimed Matisse show at the Museum of Modem Art.


Part of what makes the show so unusual is its global sweep. In one room, there is a Kandinsky donated by the Museum of Fine Arts in Yekaterinburg; in the next, there is a Malevich from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


The exhibit, however, is not without its share of controversy.


Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times art critic, called the exhibit too big. Michael Govan, deputy director of the project for the Guggenheim, spoke of the controversy at Wednesday's opening. "The show was hotly debated", said Govan. "But it was the biggest and most popular exposition in the museum's history".


In Moscow, the name of the exhibit itself has sparked controversy, partly because in Russian, the word Utopia has negative, ironic connotations.


Vitaly said the name is appropriate.


"The title tries to express the idea that for the first time, artists tried to change the world in a powerful, radical manner", he explained. "And it is 'Great' out of respect for the greatness of the venture and its size".


Russian art critic Anatoly Strigalov, who helped organize the New Tretyakov's showing, disagreed.


"I don't think it is a good name", he said. "It does not correspond to the content of the show. Utopia is only an idea, but the art is here, it is real".


The exhibit, which occupies 12 halls in the New Tretyakov, has shrunk somewhat in its homecoming. Some American and European donors were worried about their works being damaged in transit and kept them at home.


In addition, the substantial Malevich collection from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg is currently on loan to a museum in Spain.


The organizers said the omissions did not affect the quality of the show.


"The fact that it is smaller has not hurt it", Vitaly said.


Govan admitted that without the Malevich collection from St. Petersburg, the show was not as powerful as it could be.